Monday, January 05, 2009

He Made it Cool to be Shallow

Andy Warhol, that is.

The other day I watched a DVD of "Superstar", a 1990s era reflection on the great artist's life. And in the years since his untimely and unnecessary death (he died of a common post-operative infection), much of the world that cares about such things has continued to award him accolades for being what he certainly was, a pop visionary.

Some of his work is so iconic--soup cans and Marilyn over and over--we can hardly separate it from the fabric of commercialized culture he appeared to comment upon. He was perhaps the first to look at the detritus of mid-century America and say --"okay, it is a culture". Or at least it seemed that way. His comments on his own comments are famously minimalist and self-effacing. In any case, his was a new way of appreciating the world in which we found ourselves.

However, he also accomplished something else more insidious and also very long-lasting: he made it seem intelligent to be shallow. He made it seem "above it all" to wallow in it all. This is a convenient illusion. For when one worships the soup can, one is worshiping the soup can. It doesn't matter that much if you smirk and understand that you are worshiping the soup can. You are not saved from banality by irony.

There was a time when so-called artists seemed to find pop (or mainstream) culture unrelievedly wretched. They rejected it utterly, and not always to their cultural benefit. For instance, in the fifties this rejection of pop led to an embrace of a rather dull form of jazz over a much more exciting form of music called rock and roll. But by embracing Warhol in the early sixties, the art world decided it would have its cake and eat it too.

Except we are all eating cake over and over again. Knighting shallowness has resulted in a benighted cultural and political landscape. And it has probably played no small part in fomenting the overall dumbness of American public life (especially the ruinous reign of Bush).

I say we call a halt to the worship of the mediocre ubiquities of corporate-generated culture; and that we re-examine whether we have any affinity at all, as thinking adults, with the bland, selfish shallowness that Warhol glamorized.